Think back to 2014 in Canberra and remember the malaise surrounding the Raiders football club.
Average crowds of under 10,000 per match, prodigal son Ricky Stuart’s return not leading the club to the finals as hoped, high profile recruitment targets signing elsewhere or reneging on agreed deals with the club and three losses of more than 50 points during the season.
There was the rather unfortunate departure of club captain Terry Campese, and the loss of the most talented youngster the club had seen for years in Anthony Milford.
The future did not look bright.
Now fast forward to the last week of February 2016.
Fan excitement and optimism is at its highest levels since the Stuart and Laurie Daley era. A hugely improved 2015 that contained an incredible amount of close losses and unfortunate officiating blunders that led to a so-close-yet-so-far kind of season, a squad brimming with young talent signed up for the next several years.
There are also a bunch of recruits for 2016 that seem to tick all the right boxes and strengthen the weaknesses the squad had in 2015.
Then, there was the complete domination of the Newcastle Knights in the first half of their only trial match for the year.
Things are looking good. The culture of the club has been written about extensively since Ricky Stuart arrived, with a professional and robust club now becoming an attractive destination for high-profile, high-quality players.
However, not everyone can see this picture. The rugby league media and so-called ‘experts’ still believe that the Canberra Raiders will fail. They still believe that the Canberra Raiders are a club stuck in the depths of mediocrity and that they do not know how to get out of it.
This just shows the lack of attention and respect that rugby league media pays to the Raiders.
One of the NRL’s leading attacking teams in 2015 have been bolstered by even more attacking potency. They have had a full off-season to improve defensive structures and combinations, and hold one of the best strength and conditioning units in the NRL.
The injury statistics do not lie. The Canberra Raiders do have one of the best units in the NRL, no argument possible. Yet people still write off this team. Let’s have a look at the squad to see just how foolish you are to write off the Raiders in 2016.
One of the brightest young starts in the competition in Jack Wighton. More first grade experience, natural skill and toughness than almost any other fullback his age, and will only be better for the experience he gained at fullback in 2015.
Jordan Rapana, one of the most damaging and skilful ball runners in the NRL. Sisa Waqa, speed, skill, experience, leadership, and a great vertical leap. Edrick Lee, lightning fast top speed, great under the high ball, huge wingspan. He may need to work further on defensive positioning, though this may have been a structure problem in 2015, rather than individual fault.
Wayne Bennett said Jarrod Croker should be the first centre picked for NSW. That says everything you need to know. BJ Leilua is leaner, more powerful, and finally ready to live up to his massive potential. Brenko Lee also provides unbridled enthusiasm and talent waiting for a chance.
Blake Austin, the Dally M five-eighth of the year, is now with an elite level halfback next to him.
Aidan Sezer, great young halfback with fantastic organisation and kicking skills. Sam Williams, would be starter at many NRL clubs, great young player with an excellent combination with Austin. He provides fantastic cover for injury or form problems.
Paul Vaughan and Shannon Boyd, two monster young props coming into their own, have huge potential and huge ability. Frank-Paul Nuuausala is an aggression machine who provides great punch. Jeff Lima has had great experience and is a player similar to Bryan Norrie at the Storm in how he will probably be utilised.
One of the best in the competition in Josh Hodgson. Arguably in the top three hookers in the NRL.
A huge strength for the club. Josh Papalii (Queensland and Australia), Iosia Soliola (NZ), Elliott Whitehead (ENG), and club mainstay Shaun Fensom will be battling for back row spots.
They also have Jarrad and Rhys Kennedy also providing solid back up at prop or back row.
There will be Kurt Baptiste, Adam Clydsdale, and Lachlan Croker vying for the bench utility spot. Each players is worthy of starting hooker or half and many NRL clubs and provide great coverage for injury or form.
This is without doubt one of the best overall squads in the NRL for 2016. There are now out and out gamebreakers in the squat such as Austin, Wighton, and Leilua. Composure in tight situations will improve dramatically this year with the inclusion of Aidan Sezer and the first full year of NRL experience and five-eighth for Blake Austin.
Defensive structures will have been studied and improved upon over last year. The halves combination will undoubtedly be one of the best and most electrifying in the NRL.
The Canberra Raiders will make the top four in the 2016 NRL season. Book it in.